Your assumptions can destroy you.  And everyone else!

On October 27, 1962 eleven US Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph dropped practice depth charges on a Soviet Foxtrot class submarine, B59, in international waters.  This was at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Unknown to the US Navy, the submarine carried nuclear warheads on their torpedoes.  Three officers on board the submarine were authorised to launch the torpedoes if unanimously in favour of doing so.  Being out of radio contact with Moscow for days, the commander of the submarine and the political officer assumed that World War III had broken out and were in favour of launching.  The second in command, Vasilli Alexadrovich Arkhipov, however told himself a different story about the situation and stood against the launch.

A different Left Hand Column saves the world

Arkhipov may have averted a nuclear war.  He has been referred to ever since as “The Man who Saved the World”.

In an interesting twist of circumstance, in a previous event, Arkhipov backed the commanding officer of the Hotel-class Nuclear submarine during the possible reactor meltdown that almost led to mutiny.  I used this in a posting about “The Power of Denial” which is really the other side of the coin we are covering here.

What assumptions do you make about the people with whom you lock horns?  Chris Argyris developed an exercise to reflect on how we tend to deal with each other when under stress.  The exercise was aimed at people who wanted to increase the effectiveness of their conversations.  This was his Left Hand Column exercise.

He had the members of teams reflect on a particular conversation with someone with whom they work.  The conversation was essential to their effectiveness as an organisation.  However it did not go well and yielded poor results.  He asked them to be willing to consider how their actions might have contributed to the results of the dialogue.

He then asks them to fill out their “Left Hand Column”.  He asks them to write down what they thought but did not say against what they did say.

Participants step back to reflect on their Left Hand Column and the effectiveness of their interaction.

Participants consider what they were hoping to achieve, what they actually achieved and how their behaviour in the conversation may have led to the results.  He also asked them how the conversation felt to the other person, how their unspoken thoughts and feelings may have affected their actions and how they affected the other person.  He asked them to reflect on what was going on the other person’s Left Hand Column.  Finally, to swing wide the door of learning, he asked them to consider what they could keep in mind to have a more productive conversation in a similar situation in the future.

Chris Argyris collated the Left Hand Column comments on a wall-chart.  In an example he uses to describe the process the comments ranged from:

  • “Don’t let these guys upset you” and “This is not going well.”


  • “He is clearly defensive “ and “she is over blowing the systems issue to avoid having to change”.


  • “This guy is unbelievable. He will never change” and “you are nowhere as good as you think you are!”

He asked the participants to consider the comments.  I have done this exercise with teams.  They invariably look at their comments and shake their heads at how negative they are.

Chris Argyris asks his participants to characterise people who write such comments.  In the example they said, these people are “opinionated, entrenched, not listening, fearful, frustrated and angry, avoiding conflict and lacking in empathy”.  They knew they were talking about themselves.  They had just reflected on their positive, constructive approach to confrontation.  And yet the negativity was unmistakable.

We all do this!  Chris Argyris has done the experiment with more than 10 000 individuals.  And the results are always the same.  In difficult interactions we present our evaluations as if our diagnosis is valid.  We discourage testing.  We are closed to learning.  We act as if learning is unnecessary.

And here is the part I found most convicting about the insights from the Left Hand Column:

All those in the session attended the seminar with the expressed purpose of learning to be more effective in human interaction and helping others to learn.  Yet their actual behaviour was counterproductive for learning.  There was a systematic* discrepancy between their expressed aspirations and their actual behaviour.  What is more: they were systematically unaware of the ways in which they produce their unawareness.

And so we are trapped.  But we are not victims of an oppressive organizational structure.  Through our aversion to the pain of honesty we ourselves build resistance to change into our current reality.  We are trapped by our own behaviour.  We say we value openness, honesty, integrity, respect, and caring.  But we act in ways contrary to these values.  For example, rather than being open and honest, we say one thing in public and another in private.  We pretend this is the rational thing to do.  We then deny we are doing this (no I didn’t).  Then we cover up our denial (so now you are calling me a liar!)

We trap ourselves.  We trap everyone.  I have described this process in more detail in a note on “Undiscussability”.

We don’t share your Left Hand Column in difficult conversations.  What we feel most strongly and our sharpest thoughts, are not spoken.  We each assume we are an island of rational behaviour in a sea of absurdity.  We each create our own explanation of the situation.  Which is not discussed!  Therefore issues remain unresolved, opportunities for personal and team learning are lost and our beliefs and assumptions become institutionalised (in defensive routines).  And so we create a culture of non-learning.

But this is not what we want.

It seems we have rules in our heads leading us to produce consequences we do not intend.  These rules dictate that we ignore our responsibility and hold other people (or the system) responsible for the problem.  We repeat the process, with great skill.  In so doing we create a culture in which learning information is driven underground.

At the heart of the problem lies our fear of pain.  A simple door opening into a world of complexity.  We will do anything to avoid truth and the pain it brings.

These anti-learning traps also lead to tragedy.  Chris Argyris refers to Robert McNamara taking decades to admit he was blind to the problems he created in his pursuit of the war in Vietnam.  He also refers to the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Left Hand Column

Can we ever forget this tragic picture?

The Space Shuttle was lost in spite of engineers knowing about the immanent failure of the O-ring seal on the solid rocket booster.  The Rogers Commission found NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes were key contributing factors to the accident

Tip top researchers promised this would not happen again.  But then in 2003 NASA lost Space Shuttle Columbia on re-entry over Texas.

Left Hand Column

Anti-learning and the Left Hand Column is serious business.

What is the way out of this dark place?  The solution is not at all easy.  I have described a model for learning, described by my friend Arthur Gobey.  We only move along the road to learning when we embrace the pain induced by learning situations.  Taking it head-on.  Holding it.  Embracing it.  Drinking the cup to its very last dregs.

And if you are intent on engaging in this learning process there are some useful tools you can use to facilitate the learning process.  One of these tools is a process for effective confrontation, subject of another posting.  In the meantime here is an approach worth considering.

*Systematic – refers to the actual values in action in difficult conversations.  .